Tuesday, July 21, 2015

When safety was not a word spoken

I read with shock the news that F1 driver Jules Bianchi has succumbed to his head injury, many months after his crash at the Japanese GP. He was the first GP driver to die since Ayrton Senna in 1994 and hopefully, the last. A testament to the great advances in race safety over the past decades.

My mind immediately went to the anonymous club racing drivers of past years, of whom I was one, and the antiquated machines and death trap tracks we raced on and how lucky most of us were to reach old age. Safety was not a word spoken often in the pit lanes of the seventies. It took Jackie Stewart to change that.

Race tracks like Cadwell Park where the flint walls were the barriers and the open cow shed door was the escape road. Crystal Palace with its railway sleeper walls. Thruxton where the notorious bump could catapult you into the concrete marshall's post and Snetterton with it's inviting bridge pillars. But in the 1970's we raced for the thrill of it against anything with four wheels. We thought accidents happened to other people, not us. In my first race at Snetterton, in a dilapidated Lotus Seven with no seat belts, I wore a black woolly jumper and jeans.

Later, in a Mallock U2,  I did at least progress to fireproofs and seat belts, racing it across the tracks of England for eight years with no personal injury before newspapers took away my free time, and possibly saved my life. Some were not so lucky.

1st race in a Lotus 7 at Snetterton. No seat belts!
Crystal Palace all comers race

Start line at Brands Hatch

Three Mallock U2's abreast. I'm 23

Thruxton Clubmans championship race

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Art of Underwater Photography

I am a news picture nut. I spent 40 years pursuing the trade on seven national newspapers, picture editing three of them during their great eras, but brilliant photography in any genre always thrills me. Modern easy public snapshotting is now the norm but it's destroying the newsmans' art, driving those talented men and women into specialist areas, barely able to make a living. But I still love the work of the other camerafolk whose passions take them elsewhere.  Today it's the depths of the seas.

Every year the annual awards showcase these underwater men and womens' extraordinary talents. It's the Best Underwater Photographer of the Year competition awards. And what a magnificent collection they are. Here I give you just a taste of them. Click on the pictures to enlarge them. Enjoy:

A diver swims next to a huge shoal of fish in Cabo Pulmo, Mexico - this won the gold award in the Wide Angle Traditional category

A close up of a mako shark opening its mouth wide off the
coast of the Neptune Islands, Australia - this won the gold award
 in the Wide Angle Unrestricted category
A fashion model swims with a whale shark in the Philippines, Pacific - this won the silver award
 in the Commercial, Conceptual and Fashion category
A trio of pelicans dunk their heads in the water off the Central
Coast, in New South Wales - this won the honourable mention
 in the Wide Angle Unrestricted category
Two seahorses embrace in Singer Island, Florida, which won Bronze in the Animal Behaviour category
A close up of a shark off the Faial Islands, Azores - this won 
the silver award in the Animal Behaviour category
A seahorse next to a shipwreck in Eilat, Israel - this won
 the silver award in the Compact Cameras category
A close up of a Goby in the Red Sea, Middle East - this won the bronze award in the Compact Cameras category

Watery depths: A large fish is encircled by a shoal of thousands
 off the coast of Eden Rock in Grand Cayman

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The French give up wine - Sacre Bleu!

Word comes this week that the French are no longer drinking wine. Mon Dieu! What is the world coming to?  Apparently this decline has been going on for years. Those delicious bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux are disappearing from their dinner tables. In 1980 over 50% of French adults consumed the crushed grape daily - now it's just 17%. By my reckoning that's eight out of ten of our Gallic brethren don't imbibe.

Now, I love the stuff. Rarely seen without it, but there's more.

Denis Saverot, editor of La Revue des Vins de France magazine, says it's the working class who made it popular in the first place. He blames the war.

"Basically the soldiers went over the top pickled on pinard, the strong, low-quality wine which was supplied in bulk. Up until then the Normans, the Bretons, the people of Picardy and the north, they had never touched wine. But they learned in the trenches. By the 1950s there were drinking outlets, cafes and bars, everywhere. Tiny villages would have five or six."

Sounds fine to me. So, where did it all go wrong?  Denis continues.

"It is our bourgeois, technocratic elite with their campaigns against drink-driving and alcoholism, lumping wine in with every other type of alcohol, even though it should be regarded as totally different," he says.
"Recently I heard one senior health official saying that wine causes cancer 'from the very first glass'. That coming from a Frenchman. Our elites prefer to keep the country on chemical anti-depressants and wean us off wine. In the 1960s, we were drinking 160 litres each a year and weren't taking any pills. Today we consume 80 million packets of anti-depressants, and wine sales are collapsing."

He ends. "The village bar has gone, replaced by a pharmacy."

Denis has got a point worth us Anglais taking on board. Traditionally we use beer and pubs in the same way - to socialise. We always have. Got a problem? Have a beer and a chuckle with friends. That's the difference between a round of drinks and anti-depressants. Communal pill popping never solved anything. We later added wine, French originally and now universally available, to our hospitality. Are we also to go the way of those across the Mer?

Oxford-based French writer Theodore Zeldin has the last word, and this might sound familiar.

"A business-style culture has made huge inroads into France - the bane of all those who prefer to take the time to savour things. Companionship has been replaced by networking. Business means busy-ness. The old French art de vivre is still there. It's an ideal. Of course times have changed, but it still survives. We have a duty to entertain, to converse. And in France - thanks to our education system - we still have that ability to converse in a general, universalist way that has been lost elsewhere. "
"That is the art de vivre. It is about taking your time. And wine is part of it, because with wine you have to take your time. After all, that is one of the great things about wine. You can't swig it."

Order me a glass of Bordeaux immediately - and send my psychiatrist packing.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Sharksucker

Sharksucker fish

The Natural History Museum has released this fascinating picture of  the genus Remora or Sharksucker fish which uses the unique sucking disc on its head to attach itself to large marine animals such as sharks or turtles. There has long been legends of a fish that sticks to sailing ships and has powers to slow them down. Now scientists have shown that this fish developed a modified dorsal fin just for this use.

One wonders if mammals also developed along these specialist lines. One, perhaps evolved into the Bankersucker which attaches itself to customers accounts thus drawing off sustenance to convert into yachts and bonuses.

Or the Benefitsucker that seeks out taxpayers, particularly targeting daft councillors with empty five bedroom houses?

Or the MPsucker, a particularly brazen species that spots empty flats near the Houses of Parliament and attaches them to Commons expenses forms.

David Attenborough should be alerted. There's a series here for next Christmas.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Nature's fierce laws of survival

The Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year award winners are on view now at the Natural History Museum. Always a stunning show there are 100 wonderful prize winners to see there in December. I've posted some already, but this one by French wildlife cameraman, Gregoire Bouguereau, captured my attention. Read Gregoire's explanation to experience Nature's fierce laws of survival.

Practice run
When a female cheetah caught but didn’t kill a Thomson’s gazelle calf and waited for her cubs to join her, GrĂ©goire guessed what was about to happen. He’d spent nearly a decade studying and photographing cheetahs in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, and he knew that the female’s behaviour meant one thing: a hunting lesson was due to begin. The female moved away, leaving the calf lying on the ground near her cubs. At first, the cubs took no notice of it. But when it struggled jerkily to its feet ‘the cubs’ natural predatory instincts were triggered,’ says GrĂ©goire. ‘Each cub’s gaze locked on to the calf as it made a break for freedom.’ The lesson repeated itself several times, with the cubs ignoring the calf when it was on the ground and catching it whenever it tried to escape – ‘an exercise that affords the cubs the chance to practise chases in preparation for the time they’ll have to do so for real.’

Gregoire won the 2012:Behavior: Mammals Award. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

IPA Wildlife Awards

Browsing through the annual International Photography Awards is always a pleasure. Now in its 10th year this must be the most comprehensive competition in the industry with over 61 Pro categories and a similar amount for Non-Pros & Students.  To date the IPA have paid out over $175,000 in prizes.

This year I was struck by the entry of Netherlands wildlife photographer Marsel van Oosten whose wildlife work is familiar to National Geographic readers. Marsel and his partner Daniella Sibbing run wildlife
workshops all over the world for their students.

His entry is titled "Close Encounters."

It's not hard to see why. Without Marsel's courage I'd be inclined to call it "Run Like Hell!"

Monday, October 1, 2012

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

It's the photographic awards season again. My favourite time of year. Leading off is the brilliant Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition owned by the Natural History Museum and BBC Worldwide.

From an entry of thousands they whittle it down to 52 superb commended images who then vie for the title. The winners are announced on October 17th and the exhibition opens to the public two days later at the Museum. Well worth a visit. Here is just a taste of it: